All small businesses have issues with debtors. Letting them build up is a big risk to cash-flow. That’s why making the best use of the small claims track is so important. However, many small businesses are deterred by the potential costs and risks of court action. We’re still learning ourselves, but here’s some tips we’ve picked up so far.
N.B. The English small claims track is open to all claims of less than £10,000. Please note, this is NOT legal advice. We are not lawyers. This is just common sense advice for small businesses on the small claims track.
Firstly, some myths, busted
1. The court fees are expensive
You pay a fee for making the claim in the first place, and a hearing fee should it actually go to court. The claim fee, however, is relatively small. Plus, in our experience, a lot of cases don’t actually end up making it to court anyway.
It really depends what amount you’re going for, and how confident you are in your case. Court costs exist not just to help fund the legal process, but also to deter frivolous and no-hoper suits. However, the costs are progressive. The bigger the claim, the bigger the cost. The government website has a guide to potential fees.
2. OK, the court fees might be low, but what about other solicitor’s costs?
Depending on the complexity of your case and the size of the money involved, you probably don’t need a solicitor. The small claims track is ‘amateur’, in that the judge isn’t expecting you to know legal terminology, or to have any real working knowledge of the law beyond the basics you need in business. There’s some tips below on how you can do it yourself, and win!
3. I don’t want to get embroiled in some long legal dispute
That’s a reasonable fear, and even taking a claim through the small claims track does require some time and effort. However, it’s probably less than you imagine. The Money Claims Online service has made it much easier to register a claim and follow the legal process.
Again, in our experience, a lot of cases don’t make it to court. Many people just need that court letter to come through the door to get nervous and pay up. Others just ignore it, which is great for you, because it means you can apply to enter judgement online. This means you don’t have to go to court or present any evidence.
Small claims disputes only really drag on if you have difficulty getting them enforced once judgement is entered. Again, some tips lie below.
OK, so you we’ve convinced you that small claims isn’t as onerous as you think. So …
Tips on how to win and get your money
1. First, ask: is it worth it?
A note of caution: there’s good odds of getting a judgement in your favour so long as you have a good contract and you’ve acted reasonably. Getting the money is a different matter. If the amount you’re claiming (including costs) is below £600, then you’re stuck with county court bailiffs. Whereas high court bailiffs get a ‘commission’ from collecting money, county court bailiffs are effectively salaried employees. They therefore have less incentive to get your money back, and have a much lower success rate, though that success rate goes up if they have the correct address.
There are methods other than using bailiffs, of course. There are third party debt orders and attachments of earnings orders, for example. However, there are fees attached, which you won’t get back if the enforcement is still unsuccessful. There are some details of the different methods here.
2. Then, ask, do you have a good enough case?
Were the terms of sale or contract water tight? Have you acted reasonably towards them? Were there any defects in the product? Was the service performed badly?
You may have an emotional attachment to your business, and you may feel seriously aggrieved and the lack of payment r even the attitude of the person you’re claiming against. However, the judge is apathetic. They don’t appreciate too much emotion coming into the court room. They are there to dispense justice and act fairly based on the evidence at-hand, not to fulfil your crusade.
Be objective about your case. Really look at the strengths and weaknesses. It may be best to get an outsider’s point of view.
3. Do your research
If it’s a company you’re claiming against, make sure that a) you’ve got the right company name; b) you’ve got the right company address; and c) that they have assets you can claim against, and are not on the verge of bankruptcy or liquidation. You can check all these details via the new Companies House search function.
If it’s a private individual, again, make sure you’ve got their right name and address before you start.
4. If it goes to court, really think through your arguments and their counter-arguments
That last bit is crucial. Don’t just consider your evidence and arguments. Think about how they will respond, and how you will counter anything they say. You will receive a copy of their defence, and you will get a copy of any evidence they wish to provide at least 14 days prior to the court date.
5. Get your statements proof-read
This is basic, but you’d be surprised how many statements are in very poor written English. Do your best to make them as easy to read and as accurate as possible.
6. Be organised
Before you go to court, you will have to submit a statement of the case plus any evidence you wish to present (documents, etc.) at least 14 days prior to the court date. It’s wise to include a list of the evidence you are included, referenced by number (i.e. Appendix 1, 2, 3). You can then label all the documents accordingly. It’s a good idea to separate the evidence with numbered dividers, if you have multiple documents. Judges appreciate it when the evidence is clearly marked and organised. The last thing you want is a judge having to shuffle through all of your papers to make sense of your argument.
When you go to court, have all your evidence in the order you wish to talk to it. You may wish to have your own statement and list of evidence on one side, and your evidence on the other.
7. Be aware, you may need witness statements
If the strength of the case rests on a certain phone call or interaction with a certain person, it may be wise to get a statement from them backing up your case. If you can, get them to appear at court with you.
8. If they ask for more time, give it to them!
Your defendant may ask for more time to prepare evidence for the case. It may be tempting to dismiss this out of hand to help your own case. Unfortunately, judges don’t like this attitude. They take the perspective that, if your case is strong, you should win it nonetheless. There’s also an old fashioned English sense of fairness. The English legal system places a lot of value on people behaving reasonably. So if the defendant asks for more time, display reasonableness, and give it to them.
Hopefully, this has shown you that the small claims track isn’t as foreboding as you may think. There’s been a concerted effort in recent years to make the system much simpler. Just make sure you have a worthy, winnable case, and be organised about it.